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Western Academic Workers United voting on strike authorization

Union organizer's online vote for educational student employees ends Thursday; not triggering immediate strike

Ian Schaefer Lorenz leads union chants in Red Square at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. on May 1, 2024. The event transpired during International Workers’ Day. // Photo by Austin Wright

Western Academic Workers United is voting to authorize a strike after months of fruitless bargaining with Western Washington University. Voting began Monday and is expected to end Thursday at 5 p.m.

WAWU’s online referendum comes as weekly negotiations with Western admin enter the eighth month, in which the union has been advocating for higher wages, increased job security and tuition and fee waivers, among other demands listed on the WAWU website

The vote does not mean that union members will immediately strike. If the voting block of the union’s educational student employees passes by a two-thirds majority, it allows 18 elected members of the bargaining committee to set a deadline for Western to meet demands before a strike begins.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, rent for a one-bedroom unit in Bellingham rose $310 in the fiscal years 2022 to 2024, or by 31%, making the current minimum wage unlivable, said several educational student employees.

Following Gov. Jay Inslee’s passage of SB 5238 on April 20, 2023, which mandated Western to begin collective bargaining, WAWU voted to officially unionize with a margin of 98% on June 12, 2023. This is the first strike vote since the group became public on Dec. 2, 2022, when workers filed to unionize.

“How much or how effective this all comes down to how much participation we get,” Selena Knoblauch, WAWU bargaining committee member, said. “This whole union endeavor is a collective effort. And so how quickly this all happens, whether we have to go on strike, things like that, comes down to the level of participation and support we see across the board.”

Roughly 100 students gathered in Red Square at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 1 to picket in support of the imminent vote. Coinciding with International Workers’ Day, chants of  “education is a right” echoed as the march continued to the stairs of Old Main.

A Western student holds up a sign that reads, “Uniones para todos” during a speech on May 1, 2024, outside the Old Main building at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. The speeches were designed to be held outside the same building where many university administrators have offices. // Photo by Austin Wright

Organizers led the picketing route between Red Square and Old Main several times throughout the afternoon. Student employees and Bellingham City Councilmember Jace Cotton gave speeches on the main staircase.

According to open letters penned by both WAWU and the United Faculty of Western Washington, Western admin allegedly asked staff, faculty and other student employees to do the jobs of education student employees if they go on strike. The response from both unions was a resounding “no.”

Western’s lead bargaining negotiator, Rod Younker, did not reply to requests for comment for this article.

“There’s a kind of psychological impact to bargaining a first contract,” UFWW President and professor Peter Pihos said. “We have to remember that up until this year, student employees have been a group that Western could essentially dictate its terms to … without some kind of organized power, students are disaggregated and [a] differentiated bunch.”

Some WAWU members believe the union is well-positioned to agree to terms with the university by the end of the school year. The potential strike, what Knoblauch calls a “last resort,” could prove to be disruptive for end-of-year proceedings. 

“We are right, in the sense that this university doesn’t function without us,” Ian Schaefer Lorenz, WAWU member and Western student, said. “And as a result, I don’t think this administration wants to have graduation for 2024 to be occurring while there’s a picket line on this campus.”

Austin Wright

Austin Wright (he/him) is a campus news reporter for The Front this quarter. He is a second-year journalism/news ed major. When he’s not reporting, you can find him playing ultimate frisbee, watching soccer or hiking. You can reach him at

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